Dr Sandra Bell: Stress, health behaviours and the transition to adulthood among young women.

Stress, smoking and physical activity are areas of particular concern for young women, as they report higher levels of stress, are taking up smoking at a higher rate, and are less likely to undertake vigorous leisure time physical activity, than young men. In this thesis the health psychology concepts of stress, smoking and physical activity were examined in a life-span perspective. The focus was on the transition to young adulthood, which is a time of many changes for most individuals and represents the move from a dependent adolescent to an independent adult. The transition to young adulthood was defined objectively by using positions in four life domains: residential independence, employment, relationships and parenthood.

Young women participating in the ALSWH, who were aged 18 to 23 at Survey 1 in 1996 and 22 to 27 at Survey 2 in 2000, provided the data used in this thesis. The majority of these women could be classed as being in the transition to young adulthood at the time of both surveys. The stages of transition to young adulthood were used to examine, both cross-sectionally and longitudinally, the relationships with stress, smoking and physical activity. Overall, the strongest relationships were found with stress and smoking. Physical activity was most strongly related to relationship and motherhood, but not to other stages or transitions. A consistent finding was that participants who were in the most adult stage by Survey 1 showed the most negative outcomes for longitudinal changes in stress, smoking and physical activity. The exact age at which life changes were made could not be ascertained from the main surveys.

This led to a survey, which asked about the timing of six major life changes, being sent to a subsample of the young women. Early timing of the life changes was found to be most related to negative outcomes for smoking behaviour. The implications for health and developmental psychology theories and prevention/intervention strategies are discussed. Future research could incorporate more subjective measures of the transition to young adulthood, whilst future work will entail the examination of a more complex assessment of longitudinal transitions and the impact of the timing of transitions.